Quentin was feeling reasonably prepared when the Uber pulled up outside his childhood home. This weekend was going to be just like his last couple trips back, no big deal.
His dad was dying. That was… a thing that was happening.
His dad wanted to know someone was looking out for him. Sure, fine, whatever.
He’d sort of, kind of, maybe insinuated that he was seeing someone. That wasn’t a thing.
He’d definitely told his dad that someone was Eliot. That. Had certainly had the potential to backfire.
But when he looked across the seat, tapping his fingers restlessly on his knee, it was Eliot who reached over to cover them with his own hand, squeezed them gently and smiled. Quentin was having trouble smiling back, but Eliot understood.
“Showtime, sweetheart,” Eliot said gently and released Quentin’s hand to fold himself out of the car. Quentin fumbled with his seatbelt, thanking the driver as he exited the vehicle.
This was all going to be fine.
Their first visit had been cut short — Ted hadn’t been feeling well, and they’d ended up leaving barely an hour after they’d arrived. Dinner a couple weeks ago had been more successful, but it had been on the shorter side, just a couple of hours at a restaurant in the city, Ted and Eliot taking to each other like a house on fire while Quentin tried not to notice his father’s barely picked at plate.
This was a whole weekend together. He wished it was as simple as needing to pretend he liked Eliot in front of his dad.
Really, he thought as the front door opened, the problem was pretending not to like Eliot too much the rest of the time.
“Curly-Q! Right on time.” His dad gathered Quentin up in his arms in the doorway, and Quentin squeezed him reflexively before his brain even processed —
“Dad, hi. Your, uh — your hair.” Ted grimaced, and ran his hands over the smooth expanse of his scalp. Quentin’s heart thumped painfully in his chest.
“Oh, you noticed.” He let his frown slip into a lopsided grin, and Quentin didn’t comment on the dark smudges beneath his eyes, or the way his clothing was starting to hang just a little too loosely. He swallowed against the sudden feeling of having something stuck in his throat. “It was time, that’s all.”
He hadn’t realized how tense his shoulders had become until he felt a warm hand descend on one, squeezing gently, and — oh. Right. He should say... something.
“Looking good, old man.” He summoned a smile from somewhere, though from the look on his dad’s face, he hadn’t quite managed to be convincing. They stood there for a moment, Ted awkward in the doorway, Quentin awkward on the porch, before Ted took a deep breath and smiled again over Quentin’s shoulder.
“And Eliot! I’m so glad you made it down.” Quentin could feel Eliot lean in beside him, his hand still a comforting presence on his shoulder as he shook Ted’s with the other, and found himself grateful, again, that Eliot had agreed to put up with this for him.
“I’m glad to be here, Mr. Coldwater,” Eliot replied, and quirked his lips at the warning finger extended his way. Quentin almost laughed at the mock-stern expression on his father’s face. “Ted. I’m glad to be here, Ted.”
“That’s more like it.” His father beamed at them and waved them inside, calling over his shoulder, “I hope you boys don’t mind if I put you to work a bit before dinner.”
“Sure, Dad. What do you need?” Quentin asked, following him inside and up the stairs and trying not to hate that doing so meant Eliot wasn’t steadying him any longer. It wasn’t like he needed it to get up the stairs, but it was nice, having that reminder that he wasn’t alone in this. Or, at least, that he could pretend he wasn’t alone in this.
“Just help getting some boxes down into the garage,” Ted said. As he hit the upstairs landing, he waved generally at the doors in the hall. “You’ll have to have Quentin give you the full tour later, Eliot.”
He bit his lip as they passed by his old bedroom, the poster he’d tacked up in 7th grade still covering the door. He could see Eliot eyeing it in his peripheral vision, but somehow they managed to pass his crude rendition of Whitespire in peace.
He doubted that would last terribly long once they were done with whatever his dad needed.
‘Whatever his dad needed’ ended up being exactly what he said — moving six somewhat heavy boxes of books from the library down to the garage. Each box was carefully labeled. As he set the last one down on the stack they’d built in the garage, he squeezed his hands into fists over the top of it and looked at them instead of looking around the room. He already knew what he would see.
His dad had been packing: these books from the library; another few boxes of knick-knacks stacked against the wall by the door; half of his planes in plastic containers, surrounded by crumpled newspaper sheets and rolls of bubble wrap.
He wasn’t sure how long he stood there before his father cleared his throat cautiously.
“Do you want something to drink after all that lifting?”
He didn’t want a drink. He didn’t want cardboard boxes with carefully labeled lids that told him where to find his father’s penny westerns versus his favorite mystery novels. He didn’t want the planes that were being so meticulously packed, either.
“That would be great, Ted," he heard Eliot agree from somewhere beside him, the sound getting closer as Eliot reached out to ground him again, gentling a hand against the back of his neck. Qunetin relaxed into the touch, even as he reminded himself not to read into it.
He half expected Eliot to drop his hand as soon as Ted walked down the hallway, but he didn’t. He just stood there, his thumb rubbing soothing circles into the side of Quentin’s neck. He was breathing — in through the nose, out through the mouth — and not thinking about his father taking a last look at his own beloved books before packing them away.
Some of these books were older than Quentin. Some of them had bookplates written in his father’s shaky teenage handwriting. Was Ted Coldwater’s Fillory tucked into one of these boxes, a story he wouldn’t ever read again in this lifetime?
By the time Eliot did speak, Quentin had relaxed his fingers and spread them flat over the boxes, covering as much of the slashing black sharpie as he could.
It was a ridiculous question, and when he glanced over at Eliot, he shrugged, and ran his hand across Quentin’s shoulder, down his shirtsleeve, like he was smoothing out wrinkles. It could have been just that — just a friend, being comforting — if he hadn’t continued, setting off tingles against the skin of Quentin’s wrist as he slid his hand under Quentin’s, turning it to lace their fingers together, palms touching.
It struck Quentin, suddenly, that this — giving his father the lie that his son was in love and was loved — was one of the kindest things anyone had ever done for him.
“Nothing’s ever going to fix this, Eliot.” He hadn’t even realized he’d opened his mouth to respond until he’d said it. They’d been here less than an hour, and he had to keep it together. Eliot was doing enough.
He glanced up as Eliot moved further into his space, wishing he’d just stopped talking — ever, really. Before he'd freaked out about his father’s half-packed office. Before they’d arrived to find his dad visibly sicker than he’d been two weeks ago. Before he’d told his dad he was definitely dating his best friend.
But Eliot was his best friend. He was sometimes arrogant and occasionally mean and always the most stylish person in the room. He was gorgeous, and vain, and thoughtful, and extremely protective of the people he’d latched on to. And, somehow, Quentin was one of those people.
Which meant that when he caught his eye, Eliot wasn’t looking at him with disgust or frustration, but with an understanding that nearly cut Quentin off at the knees.
“I’m sorry,” he said. As soon as the words hit air, he knew he wasn’t going to be able to leave it there. “For being an asshole about this. I just.” He shrugged. “My dad is dying.” He frowned at the floor, unsure where to look.
“I can’t really relate,” Eliot responded after a moment, as if he were choosing his words carefully. “You want to talk about assholes? You’ve never met my dad.” He stopped, looked up and to the side, mouth pressed flat.
“Hey, I know, it’s — it’s ok.” Quentin said. He pulled his hand free to reach for Eliot’s shoulder, brushed his fingers over it comfortingly.
He did know. It had been one of those things, like mentor’s week, when Quentin had spiraled in first year, when Eliot had looked his dark thoughts in the face and reciprocated with his own. They didn’t talk about it often, but they both knew the hidden things that haunted the other, and that was… well. That was one of them.
It took a minute for Eliot to tune back into the conversation, his smile subdued and sad in a way that plucked at Quentin’s heartstrings.
“You’ve never met him,” Eliot continued, finally. “And for good reason. But your dad…” Eliot exhaled, a quick puff of air, and tugged on Quentin’s elbow.
A second and third tug later, a glance at Eliot’s fond smile and raised eyebrows, and Quentin finally realized what he wanted. It was easy to turn and fold himself up in Eliot’s embrace, his cheek pressed against Eliot’s polo. He smelled like a forest, but sweeter — like Quentin was standing in the middle of a grove of peach trees.
He’d had the thought before, but it still surprised him every time: It was what Quentin had always thought of when he’d imagined traveling to Fillory.
“Your dad is special, Q. He knows you. He loves you. And you’re going to lose him.” Eliot shifted a hand up Quentin’s neck, threaded his fingers through his hair at the nape. “It’s okay that that’s an overwhelming thing. You don’t need anyone’s permission to be mad. And you certainly don’t need anyone’s forgiveness.”
It was. A lot.
Eliot was a lot, all the time. Eliot had his hands in Quentin’s hair, had Quentin pressed up against him, was giving him permission to be angry while holding him like he was about to burst into tears.
Quentin was not going to burst into tears.
“But if it makes you feel better, I can think of a few ways for you to make it up to me.”
Quentin huffed out an incredulous laugh against Eliot’s chest as the words registered, trying to ignore the thrill that crept up his spine at the suggestion. This was Eliot; jokes and flirtations were just like breathing, for him. It didn’t mean anything.
Except when Quentin shifted to respond, Eliot was right there, eyes alight, curls falling artfully into his face, rolling the corner of his lip between his teeth. His expression was playful, yes, but also warm and hopeful. He was still holding Quentin, fingers flexing in his hair, their faces inches apart, and if either of them moved —
Quentin heard the sound of a gentle knock on the open door, but his brain didn’t register what that meant until it was followed by his father’s voice.
“I thought I’d go ahead and bring those drinks. But, uh, don’t let me interrupt,” Ted said, chuckling from the doorway as the two of them sprang apart.
“I was just stepping away, actually. Bathroom?”
“Up, um. Upstairs and to the right.” Quentin scrubbed at the back of his neck to stop the sensation that Eliot had left there, and then reached out to accept the beer his Dad had brought for him.
“Thanks.” Eliot was smiling, and Quentin spent a moment wishing for that level of smoothness. He was not graceful, in everyday movements or casting, but with Eliot it just seemed to be effortless.
Of course, Quentin thought, when Eliot turned back to wink at him from the doorway — nothing Eliot ever did was actually effortless.
“... made it down this weekend,” Ted said, and Quentin wrenched his attention away from Eliot’s disappearing form, because his dad was talking to him, wasn’t he? He should probably be paying attention to that.
“Hm? Oh, yeah. I’m glad I got to visit.” He leaned against the boxes, and took a pull from the beer. “I probably can’t make it back for a few weeks, midterms are — ” He sighed. “Honestly, probably going to be rough. But I think I can visit after, during our fall break.”
“I know you’re busy, Quentin. You have a life. I’m just glad when you get time to drop by.” Ted took a sip of his own beer, looking at the stack of boxes. “Eliot seems like a very nice young man," he said, and Quentin only barely managed not to fumble the bottle he was holding.
“Well,” he started, blinking away the subject change. “Nice is a bit — ”
Much? Eliot was as capable of being nice as anyone else, though he was choosey with how he expressed it. What had he said, when Todd pressed him about partying instead of studying with the other third-years? So few things are worth caring about.
But he’d been on his very best behavior all three times they’d visited, and he’d always been nice to Quentin. Had basically adopted him, since he’d hopped down off the Brakebills sign a year ago with a confident smirk and taken a nervous first year under his wing. He’d never really let him go.
“Yeah, we can — we can call him nice. He’s very — nice.”
Ted chuckled. “I mean it, he’s very polite. Has a good handshake. Dresses well.” He took a deep breath. “You know I’m not going to be around much longer.”
“Dad, no — ” Quentin started, but Ted didn’t let him finish, held up a hand for patience, and Quentin bit back the rest of his argument.
“No, son, I’ve made my peace with that.” Ted shook his head, and looked off to the side for a moment, before turning his attention back to Quentin. “It means a lot to me that you’ve got somebody like Eliot in your corner, is all.”
“Yeah, he’s — of course he is,” Quentin stammered out, because Quentin might have had an inappropriate crush on his most definitely fake boyfriend, but he also knew that Eliot had his back, no matter what.
“Anyway,” his dad said, wiping his hands on his pants legs. “I wouldn’t mind seeing more of him. It really seems like he makes you happy, so. That’s good enough for me.”
It hit Quentin somewhere just to the right of his heart — his dad’s casual acceptance of Eliot’s supposed place in his life, his support for that. It really — it made him wish that support was being given to something real. He supposed having Eliot as just a friend again, when everything was said and done, wouldn't be awful. It wouldn't be that different from having Eliot as a friend-and-fake-boyfriend now, since they were only faking it for his dad.
But the illusion was nice.
Abruptly, Quentin realized that Ted was still standing there, watching him cycle through emotional realizations, and shook himself back into the moment.
“Yeah, definitely.” He said — only that wasn't really the correct response for. Whatever it was he’d said before. “I mean — um. Thanks, dad.”
He reached out and pulled his father into a gentle hug. And he wasn't — he wasn't thinking about how much more easily his arms wrapped around his dad’s chest. He wasn't doing that. He.
He was being grateful. That he could still do this at all.
Six to eight months, he thought. And of course, they had to be months when he was in school, when his time was occupied with other things, but. Six to eight months. Maybe longer, if they’re lucky. It was really fucking weird, having a countdown timer hanging over his relationship with his father. Because these hugs had an expiration date — and fuck, how awful was that? So he was determined to focus on the good, while it lasted.
When Ted finally pulled away, they were both sniffling, and then, moments later, both laughing to discover there weren’t any kleenex in the garage. Blowing your nose with a paper towel from the cleaning supply cabinet was fine, Quentin guessed. But he wouldn’t have picked it if he had a choice. He pitched the paper towels in the trash can, and his father cleared his throat.
“Well. I’m going to get started on dinner. Think you can chop some vegetables for me?” he asked hopefully, and Quentin sighed.
“Being a magician didn’t magically make me less likely to injure myself with knives,” he reminded Ted, who threw his hands up with a laugh as they started for the kitchen. “Why don’t you let me shape up the hamburgers for you, and we’ll make Eliot chop vegetables when he comes back downstairs?”
“Deal,” Ted agreed. “Oh, and Quentin?”
“Bottles in the recycling bin.” Ted quirked an eyebrow at him and pointed at the blue recycling bin in the corner of the room. It was nice, and normal feeling, and entirely separate from the big emotions he’d been having all day — just his dad, being his dad, fussing about the recycling.
It was enough to put Quentin in a good cooking mood. Enough that, when Eliot meandered into the kitchen a few minutes later, they put him to work with smiles. Enough that, when the hamburger patties were ready, and his hands were clean, and Eliot was doing that fancy fast chopping thing with the knife and a pile of sugar snap peas, Quentin pulled up on his tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek without stressing about it.
When Eliot looked delighted at that development, well. Quentin just let that be another good thing to add to the pile.
Dinner went well, lingering conversation over hamburgers and salad and another craft beer his father had picked up from somewhere. This one was fruity and golden, and Ted had shrugged at Quentin’s inquisitive glance when he passed them over the counter.
“You only get so many days, might as well enjoy them.”
And, how was Quentin ever supposed to say no to that?
Eliot, in an uncharacteristic show of tact, hadn’t declined either beer, or even made a face over the bottles, and Quentin made a note to thank him, later. For this. For… for everything.
After dinner, they piled into the den, with its deep leather couches, and deep shelves lining the wall, full of VHS tapes and DVDs. His dad had built up quite an impressive collection over the years. They'd spent hours in this space, watching videos, eating popcorn. Later, when he was older, he would bring his Fillory books and perch on the couch with his dad, reading while Ted watched whatever spaghetti western he’d picked up at the discount bin on the way home.
He’d needed the Fillory books, back then, to make it through each day. But part of him wished he could go back, anyway: sit with his father on weekend afternoons and spend time doing the things that Ted had enjoyed, just for the sake of doing them together.
His dad had chosen one of those westerns tonight, and had made himself comfortable in his recliner while Eliot and Quentin negotiated the couch. Somehow, they’d settled with Quentin tucked under Eliot’s arm, his feet pulled up on the cushion beside him as they watched the lone sheriff of a wild west boom town go about his daily duties.
Even though he’d meant to focus on the movie, having Eliot so close — that smell of peach groves right there, like he could turn his head and touch the leaves — meant Quentin spent most of the movie turning over thoughts about the two of them, instead.
There was no question that Eliot had been flirting with him in the garage earlier. Maybe it was just him being nice. Except for the way he’d been looking at him — like Quentin was someone special. Someone worth caring about.
It could have been a show, he supposed. Eliot was smooth as a rule, casually flirty and tactile with Quentin and with Margo in ways that he wasn’t, really, with other people. But he hadn’t really turned the full force of his charm on Quentin in a while, and he’d assumed.
By the time Quentin had realized what that charm might have meant, it felt like Eliot had lost interest in the idea of them. He’d always been Quentin’s friend, even when he was chasing after other boys. But it hadn’t ever been quite like that moment at the Brakebills sign, again, until…
Until they’d started this, actually.
He remembered, suddenly, the shock that had run up his arm when Eliot had taken his hand under the table at their lunch with his father two weeks ago. It hadn’t been something he had to do — who could see that, really? But the soft, encouraging smile he’d gotten in response to his questioning look had put him at ease, and it had been easier to face the differences in his father with Eliot’s hand as an anchor.
He’d been reaching out to him all day today, too. Supportive, and comforting, and… yes, there had been a bit of flirtation, as well. He’d thought, before, that maybe he'd imagined it. But what if he hadn’t?
And that was. Okay. A good deal more than okay, even.
It was nice to just sit with him and watch as the plot unfolded, the sheriff’s girl being taken by bandits, and his mad dash to the nearby mines to rescue her. When he jumped from the roof of the saloon onto his waiting horse, Quentin tilted his head up, struck by a sudden thought.
“I can do that, you know,” he said softly, and Eliot swiveled his head around, face incredulous.
“The saddle jump?” he asked, and Quentin bit his lip, not offended at all by the disbelief in his tone.
“Well, I used to be able to,” he shrugged nonchalantly and then grinned and rolled his eyes. “Fine, I did it successfully once.”
He didn't feel like mentioning the seventeen failed attempts, and one rolled ankle. They weren't important to the narrative, anyway. Eliot still didn’t look like he believed him, but that was okay. “I can ride a horse though. Thank you Junior Cowboy Camp.”
“Huh. I had no idea you had it in you, Coldwater,” Eliot murmured back, and they looked at each other for a moment. Quentinin felt something smug and slightly warm bubbling up into his chest at the edge of heat in Eliot’s gaze.
After an entire day of being on the back foot, wondering if he was the one misreading the signals, to be able to surprise Eliot, and maybe flirt a little in the process, even if it was clumsy, made him feel fuzzy, like a bottle of freshly opened soda. He turned his attention back to the movie, to the train chase scene, but he could still feel Eliot’s eyes on him, and that. That felt good, too.
They watched the movie quietly for a while, his dad occasionally remarking on a bit of trivia. It was comfortable, and fun, and Quentin drifted happily through the end of the movie. He stretched as the credits rolled, looked over to his father only to find him asleep in his recliner, his chest softly rising and falling.
"Should we wake him up and get him to bed?" Eliot asked, leaning close to whisper.
Quentin fought the instinct to press himself closer. "Not yet. He doesn't — I know he has trouble sleeping these days, we should let him rest."
Eliot nodded, grabbing the knit blanket off of the back of the sofa and crossing the room to gently place it across Ted's lap. The loss of warmth at his side left Quentin feeling bereft, but Eliot was next to him again before he could come up with an excuse to head to bed.
They sat in the warm silence of the den for a few minutes, Quentin's head cycling through a hundred things he wanted to say and Eliot seeming entirely at ease. He was so distracted by his own thoughts that he nearly jumped when he felt Eliot run his fingers down his wrist and entwine their fingers so they were comfortably holding hands.
He looked to see if his father had woken up — surely that would explain Eliot continuing the act — only to find him soundly asleep and Eliot looking at him intently when he turned back.
"I want to say thank you, Q," Eliot said softly, looking down at their hands.
"Why would — thank me? I should — I'm the one who should be thanking you. For everything, for doing this, for supporting me, for being…" He swallowed. He wanted to tell Eliot how perfect he was, how perfect all of this had felt, even if it was just an act. But of course he couldn't do that. "For being with me for all of this," he finished instead.
Eliot huffed a quiet laugh and squeezed his hand. "Thank you for letting me. I'm happy to be here. Ted is great, and you're…" Eliot seemed at a loss for words, which was something Quentin didn't think he'd ever seen before. "I've really enjoyed this, Q. Getting to know what it could be like."
There was a wistfulness — or maybe even a hopefulness — in Eliot's voice that slid down Quentin's spine and curled around the base, fortifying him. A spark started there and traveled its way up his nerves until he felt electric, right on the edge of something, if only he could —
He had no plans for the rest of the sentence until Eliot looked up from where he had still been staring at their entwined hands and smiled. "Hey," he said back, and then Quentin knew exactly what he was going to do, leaning forward and bringing their mouths together in a soft kiss.
The look on Eliot's face when they pull apart was sweet and soft and a little dazed, and Quentin felt a warm and contented pride at having been the one to put it there.
"Q," Eliot whispered, reaching to pull him in for another kiss. They didn't linger overly much — his dad's steady breathing from across the room was a gentle reminder of where they were — but the feeling of Eliot's lips against his was still overwhelming, aching and perfect and everything he had wanted for so long.
They sat curled into each other for a while longer, soft kisses punctuating whispered conversation about finally and but I thought and we were fools. Quentin found he had never been happier to have been wrong about something.
Eventually, they conceded defeat to their exhaustion and agreed to go to bed, leaving Ted to sleep comfortably in his recliner. As they climbed the stairs to Quentin's childhood bedroom, filled with his imaginings about a fantasy land his younger self had needed so badly to believe in, he was overflowing with the heady, giddy feeling of heading into something real.